Food for thought: Will the Obama administration’s strategy on North Korea backfire?
Yesterday the United States and North Korea issued separate and conflicting statements regarding a way forward in the Six Party Talks. While this should come as no surprise, the most notable policy change is the administration’s willingness to move forward with 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea. Linking humanitarian assistance to progress ...
Yesterday the United States and North Korea issued separate and conflicting statements regarding a way forward in the Six Party Talks. While this should come as no surprise, the most notable policy change is the administration's willingness to move forward with 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea.
Yesterday the United States and North Korea issued separate and conflicting statements regarding a way forward in the Six Party Talks. While this should come as no surprise, the most notable policy change is the administration’s willingness to move forward with 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea.
Linking humanitarian assistance to progress or even the resumption of six party talks is a bad precedent and until recently the Obama administration and the State Department have never stated this new position publicly. Many would say that this would be an attempt to bribe the North Koreans to the table taking advantage of a dire humanitarian situation.
During the Bush administration the U.S. and other six party member states agreed to provide assistance in the form of Heavy Fuel Oil as a condition for North Korea to halt its nuclear activities and missile tests. While this created some controversy, there was no link to the humanitarian needs of North Korea.
Until now, the United States has always assessed the delivery of humanitarian assistance on the basis of need, not politics. This is not to say that we blindly give assistance to rogue governments. The U.S. Agency for International Development is well versed in navigating this sensitive subject. Experienced teams will put conditions on humanitarian aid, taking extraordinary steps to assure what commodities are needed most and what areas of a country have been most affected. USAID will then elaborate on how it can best respond to humanitarian emergencies.
The Obama administration has been assessing the food situation in North Korea and deliberating on what to do for almost a year. This delay and the statements released by both governments will fuel speculation that the Obama administration decided to wait until now and use humanitarian assistance as leverage on Kim Jong-un’s new regime to get them back to the negotiations table.
There were signs earlier this week when, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, linked humanitarian food assistance to the stalled six party talks aimed at North Korea’s de-nuclearization.
Admiral Willard said, "In terms of these negotiations that have been ongoing, I have been supportive of them, with regard to the United States’ proposals for conditional food aid into North Korea and the preconditions that have come with it, which now include discussions of cessation of nuclearization and ballistic missile testing."
I experienced the reality of negotiating with the North Koreans firsthand in late 2007 and early 2008 on three trips to Pyongyang as the lead American negotiator with the North Korean government over the terms for resuming food aid where each of these meetings was chaired by First Vice Minister, Kim Kye-gwan. These discussions were done entirely separate from the six party negotiations.
The United States reached an agreement with North Korea to provide up to 500,000 metric tons of food under a significantly improved framework ensuring food would reach the North Korean people who needed it most.
This agreement remedied past problems of the regime diverting humanitarian food shipments to the military or for black market revenues. The North Koreans agreed to improved access at all stages of the food distribution apparatus, to allow random assessments, and, for the first time, permit American and U.N. World Food Program workers fluent in Korean to work in-country to oversee the distribution process, assess needs in different locations, and review distribution lists.
This program came to an abrupt halt in March 2009 with the expulsion of U.S. NGOs who were in-country monitoring the distribution shortly before the regime conducted another round of nuclear tests and long-range missiles.
The subject of food assistance should have been brought up separately during the meeting between the United States and North Korea. First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan is well versed in both sides of these negotiations as noted by North Korea’s claim that the U.S. has "promised" to offer 240,000 metric tons of food assistance with the prospect of increasing the amount.
What will the Obama administration do when North Korea breaks its promises yet again and humanitarian assistance is now linked directly to the six party talks? One wonders if there was ever a clear strategy within the administration in its attempt to bring the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.
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